Where Meaning of Term in Separation Agreement is Ambiguous, Trial Court Decides on Definition

Supreme Court of Connecticut: Post-Judgment Divorce Action

In a post-judgment divorce action, the Supreme Court of Connecticut upheld a lower court’s interpretation of “cohabitation” as used in a separation agreement. The court found that the trial court, which found the meaning of the term to be ambiguous, was not clearly erroneous in the definition it applied in determining whether the condition allowing for alimony termination had been met.

The Plaintiff and the Defendant

The plaintiff, wife, and defendant, husband, were married in November 1975, and in January 2002, the wife filed an action for dissolution of the marriage, citing irretrievable breakdown. That October, the trial court rendered judgment dissolving the marriage, and incorporated by reference a separation agreement submitted by the parties. This agreement provided that the wife would pay the husband alimony payments of $125 per week, which would terminate upon his cohabitation with “[an] unrelated female.” The alimony was otherwise non-modifiable as to term and amount. In 2007, when the wife suspected the husband was residing with an unrelated female, she hired a private investigator to conduct surveillance of the husband. In September 2007, the wife was informed that the husband was indeed living with an unrelated female, and the wife immediately stopped paying alimony and filed a motion to terminate alimony in February, 2008. The husband in turn filed a motion for contempt.

Evidentiary Hearing

In June 2008, an evidentiary hearing was held and the parties testified as to their understandings of the term “cohabitation.” For the wife, “cohabitation” meant “living with and sharing expenses with,” whereas for the husband it meant living together in a manner akin to husband and wife, with the requirement of a romantic or sexual relationship. The husband testified that the parties’ attorneys stated that “cohabitation” had a standard legal meaning that included a romantic or sexual component, but the wife testified this discussion never took place. The husband denied any romantic or sexual relation with the woman, and stated that they occupy different bedrooms and bathrooms in the house, as well as equally split rent and utilities. In October 2008, the trial court ruled that it agreed with the husband’s interpretation of “cohabitation,” and that the nature of his living arrangements did not rise to that level. It also found that the wife’s conduct did not constitute willful contempt. The wife appealed this decision.

Separation agreements

Separation agreements are regarded and construed as contracts, and must be interpreted so as to reflect the intent of the parties. Intent is determined by the language used in light of the parties’ situation and circumstances. Where a court finds the language of a contract ambiguous, or “reasonably susceptible [to] more than one interpretation,” it will look to whether the term has varying definitions in common speech. The court’s interpretation is subject to reversal on appeal if it is clearly erroneous, or has no evidence in the record to support it.

The Outcome

In this case, the court found ample evidence to support the trial court’s interpretation of “cohabitation” as requiring a sexual or romantic component to the relationship. Support of this conclusion not only came from the husband’s testimony, which the trial court was free to reject, but also in the language of the separation agreement itself. The use of the modifying phrase “with [an] unrelated female” was evidence the parties intended the term “cohabitation” to require a romantic or sexual relationship, as alimony would not terminate if the husband cohabitated with a related female. Therefore, the court found the trial court’s conclusion was not clearly erroneous and affirmed judgment.

Whether advancing or defending a post-judgment motion regarding awards of alimony, assignment of property, and child support, a divorced individual is best served by consulting with an experienced family law practitioner. Should you have questions regarding matrimonial matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.